It would be nice if Canada geese weren’t so darn smart. However, talk to any hunter that has spent a lot of time in the field and they will have story after story about birds that have learned to avoid the trouble associated with decoy spreads.
This decoy shy phenomena is not something that comes naturally, it is a learned behavior that develops after birds have been shot at a number of times. I believe the more birds are hunted, the more they are able to imprint the dangers associated with decoy spreads into their brains. Snow geese do it, why not Canada geese?
There are a couple of specific patterns I look for that indicate geese are highly pressured and vary wary. When birds start reacting a certain way, I know it is time to mix things up and do something different.
Decoy wary birds often will approach from the front but slide off to the side at a couple of hundred yards. The next move they make is classic and predictable.
Once off to the side of the spread, they will approach from behind and then make a high pass directly overhead. Generally, this is the kiss of death as these birds rarely come back once they have looked at your spread from directly above.
One thing I like to do when this starts to happen is to turn one of the hunters around to face the back of the spread. This hunter is able to watch exactly what the geese are doing behind the decoys without squirming around in the blind and spooking the birds. They can also call the shot if they approach within range, which does happen. When hunters are all facing the pocket, it is difficult to really know what is going on behind you.
Another sure sign of pressured geese can be heard more than it can be seen. Pressured geese definitely change their calling and vocalization patterns.
As a general rule, spooky geese get silent when they approach a spread. Obviously, they are listening to see what kinds of calling sounds are coming from the ground. As a general rule, these geese have lots of experience with decoys.
Recently, I had a serious discussion on the art of calling pressured geese with hunting specialist, Chad Allen from the internet shopping site of Barrels Up and Dirty Girl Camo. Allen and I were on the same page when it came to working wary birds.
Allen believed that the more a person knew about calling, the more successful they would be in the field. He felt quiet geese should be hunted quietly with a minimal amount of calling. If they talk to you, talk back. If they aren’t talking, be silent until they are close enough for some confidence building moans and soft clucks.
I certainly agree with this. Too many times I hear hunters overcall geese. It is important to remember that the purpose of calling is to help get the birds in range. It is not to try and wear the reed out of your call. All too often hunters shout at geese instead of talking to them.
Hunting pressured birds is always a challenge. No matter what you do in the field, you will not fool every flock. However, if you are not fooling any birds, you may need to change up your routine.
Simple adjustments, such as facing a hunter the opposite way or cutting way back on the calling, are two simple tactics that can help.
There is no question the pheasant numbers have dwindled across the Midwest. This is especially true in the regions that have suffered through a combination of tough winters and loss of CRP. Still, even though the numbers are down, pheasant hunting is not a thing of the past.
Pheasant enthusiasts are a lot like the Chicago Cubs fans. Even though there is little hope of a great season and little to cheer for, they continue to support their sport and head to the field whenever they can.
If there is one thing I have learned over the 45 years I have been hunting pheasants it is this. There are always pockets of birds that will offer good hunting. If you can find these pockets of birds, you will be rewarded for your efforts.
The key in finding these pockets of birds is to locate great habitat. Without question, hunters need to spend more time in search of these quality locations than they did when the bird numbers were higher. This probably means more road time and knocking on a few more doors.
One of the considerations in determining this fall’s population actually happened last winter. Pheasants that had access to food or food plots last winter fared better than those that had to travel. Birds that fed close to their roost areas experienced less predation and entered the breeding season in better shape.
Adequate cover is always a plus for pheasant hunting. Natural prairie grasses that are four or five feet tall offer a lot more in cover that quack grass and weeds. This is true for both the nesting season and the hunting season.
Corn is probably the favorite food of the pheasant in the fall and winter months. Quality grassland cover next to a picked corn field is going to attract and hold more birds than cover that does not have corn fields adjacent to it.
This year, water is going to be another concern. With so many dry ponds in the Midwest, water is not as easy to find as it usually is.
And water is important. I remember hunting North Dakota one year when there was very little water. Our best location turned out to be a water hole in the middle of grassland habitat. Every morning and evening the pheasants could be found close to this water source.
One advantage pheasant hunters do have this year is the dry fall and early removal of row crops. This greatly reduces the cover available to pheasants and congregates the birds into smaller areas. That can never hurt.
Pheasant hunters that truly love their sport do not give up easily. Although the bird count in many regions is up from last year, it is still significantly below the long term average. Because of this, hunters will be forced to potentially drive farther and spend more time looking for pockets of birds that they used to.
This may not be the year for a record pheasant harvest, but those that do their due diligence and hunt where the pockets of birds are located will succeed just fine.
It was the last day of our Arkansas snow goose hunting adventure with Goose and Duck Smackers Guide Service. The early morning rain that had been promised by the weatherman had not yet arrived. However, the leading edge of the clouds was present making for a spectacular red and orange sunrise.
As the guides finished the last minute preparations in the decoy spread, our group of hunters readied our blinds and prepared ourselves for whatever the day would bring. For the previous three mornings, the early flight had been memorable and we were hoping for more of the same on day four.
Although the cloud cover helped attract some flocks to our spread, the total lack of wind made finishing these birds difficult. After a few high passes, the game was up and they moved on to other locations.
We all saw the large group of birds approaching us from our right. They were unusually low and at first we figured they were specs. As they closed the gap it became apparent they were snows and we readied ourselves for the upcoming opportunity.
Thanks to the experienced guides that set the decoys, these birds centered perfectly and came over our party at 35 yards. When the shot was called, there was no shortage of targets and birds started dropping in earnest.
When the dog finally found the last goose, we had a total of eight birds for our first volley. That was definitely a good start to the day.
Arkansas snow goose hunting was a new experience for our group. Instead of waiting for the migration flight in Missouri and South Dakota, we opted to travel south to where many of the birds winter and the initial staging for their trek north takes place.
According to Brian Cahalan, owner of the guide service, being able to hunt the staging areas in February meant more opportunities for juvenile birds. Juvenile birds are much less wary than adults and often make up the bulk of the hunter harvest. That was certainly the case with our crew as the young birds accounted for more than 50 percent of our take.
Although there were many memorable aspects of our hunting trip, the lodge life was a hit with everybody. Being able to share accommodations with the guides and other hunters gave us the opportunity to tell stories and relax in comfort. Not having to cook or go out for meals was also a huge bonus.
Even though I have been involved with many snow goose hunts, I continue to find the outings extremely enjoyable. The unique way snow geese approach the spread from above makes this style of hunting a very visual experience.
Snow geese are rarely in a hurry to set down in a spread. Instead, they will circle high above the decoys and only come lower if they see something they like. Many times the adult birds will make a dozen passes before they decide what they want to do.
Hunters will also witness large flocks of a thousand or more birds working their way north. These high flyers are not interested in eating and won’t miss a wing beat as they pass over your spread. However, they are still a thrill to see.
The spring snow goose experience is very unique. It is an opportunity to witness incredible numbers of birds as they move to their summer nesting grounds in the far reaches of Canada. It is also an opportunity to participate in the Conservation Order that is designed to reduce the overall population.
It seems like everybody has a passion for some type of outdoor adventure. For many, bird hunting ranks at the top of the list. And, when it comes to bird hunting, it is hard not to love the spring snow goose migration.
It has been more than a dozen years since a Conservation Order was put into place to reduce the population of snow geese in North America. These birds have become so plentiful they are endangering their tundra nesting areas in Northern Canada.
The reason the nesting habitat is being destroyed is a twofold problem. First, snow geese love the roots of the plants that grow in this frigid climate and they use their beaks to rip up the ground to get at the roots. Secondly, with the short growing season, plant re-growth is a slow process on the tundra. In reality, the geese are literally eating themselves out of house and home.
The Conservation Order was an effort to slow the growth of the continental goose population. It was hoped that liberal limits, electronic calls, and unplugged shotguns would be able to substantially reduce the snow goose population.
Unfortunately, the Conservation Order did not totally fix the population dilemma. However, it has helped. It has also opened up a whole new opportunity for outfitters and hunters to participate in a phenomenal hunting experience.
Over the past four years, I have had the chance to hunt snow geese in Missouri and South Dakota. These hunts have always taken place in March and have been enjoyable and productive. Although I am still planning on hunting the migration in South Dakota, I am also planning a trip to Arkansas in February.
It was during a South Dakota hunt with Brian Cahalan from Goose and Duck Smackers Guide Service (gooseandducksmackers.com) that I first learned about snow goose hunting in Arkansas. Although Cahalan follows the migrating geese through Missouri and South Dakota, he spends a month in Arkansas first.
According to Cahalan, the Arkansas hunt is a little different than hunting migrating snow geese in other states. Many of the snow geese in Arkansas actually winter in the area. Others are moving in as they begin staging for the migration process. Cahalan claims that for most of the month the geese are quite content to feed in the rice fields.
Cahalan likes the way geese decoy in Arkansas. He believes targets are generally closer during the early stages of the season than later in the spring. He also likes the fact there are plenty of juveniles around. Young birds are easier to decoy than the wary adults.
Cahalan also stated there are fewer outfitters in Arkansas which means less pressure on the birds and more success in the field. His standard set of 1200 decoys gets plenty of attention.
North American snow goose populations are estimated to be over 5 million. Any way you cut the pie that is an incredible number of birds. With the Conservation Order in place again this year, hunters will be working hard at taking out a few of the millions of geese that come north each spring.
Although there are plenty of opportunities to hunt snow geese, the February start in Arkansas may offer a unique early hunting experience to help chase away those winter blues.
I received a call from hunting enthusiast, Brian Corrigan, inviting me to join him for an early morning goose shoot. Since there are few things I enjoy as much as Canada goose hunting, I arranged my schedule to accommodate the offer.
In making the final preparations, I was told I didn’t have to bring my layout blind as we would be hunting from a pit. That was good news. I have hunted out of pits before and have found them to be a very efficient means of concealment.
Darkness still gripped the world as we drove across the bean stubble to the pit. I could see at once that it was a well devised contraption. The sides were lined with tongue and groove and there was sitting room for three or four hunters.
The pit lay east and west which meant the best hunting winds would be from the north or south. Our wind was from the east so Corrigan and I made an adjustment to our spread. Instead of making the normal “U” shaped pattern we did a modified “J” with the birds approaching left to right in front of us.
The first birds of the day slid off to our west and never really gave us a look. However, the single that followed this flock was more than willing. It was a gravy shot.
A short time later, we had a group of a dozen swing through the decoys. The targets weren’t great, but we did manage to pull one bird out of the flock.
And then the wait began. We watched several distant flocks settle into fields but could not get anything else to give us a look. Finally, a fair sized number of birds appeared on the horizon and headed our way.
As is often the case, most of the birds bypassed our setup to look at something else. However, there were five that peeled out to take a closer look. One came right in and we let it land. The other four were less certain about the situation, but once their buddy was on the ground, they didn’t want to be left behind.
It is funny how quickly it can be over. One moment you are four birds short of a limit and the next you are casing your shotgun.
Pit hunting definitely has some advantages over other means of concealment. Pressured birds get wary of the layout blind profile and learn to avoid them. These same birds that want nothing to do with layout blinds will not hesitate to come into a spread when hunters are concealed in a pit.
There are problems associated with pit hunting. The inability to move the pit according to the wind is an issue. Instead, hunters need to vary their spread to accommodate the wind direction.
Pits are not mobile. You can’t pick up a pit and move it to a different field. Nor can you easily convince a land owner to let you dig one. Unless it is someone you know really well, pits will not be allowed.
Occasionally, I have had been able to reduce the layout blind profile by digging a shallow trench for the blind. It doesn’t take much to alter the look and improve your chances. Using very low profile blinds will also help.
Geese get wary after being heavily hunted. They definitely learn what layout blinds are all about and stay away from them. However, pits allow a different approach that can improve late season success.
I am sure there are plenty of Canada goose hunters that are in a similar position to mine. They have the desire to occasionally work with a big spread but just don’t have the carrying capacity to handle a heavy load.
For example, my goose trailer is not really a goose trailer. It is my four-wheeler trailer with sides and a canvas top. It is less than ideal in some ways but certainly fits my storage issues and gets the job done.
There are days when even my makeshift goose trailer is more than I want to haul around. This is especially true if I am hunting by myself or if the fields are so wet that I am afraid of getting stuck.
When this happens, I am forced to use the decoys I can carry in the back of my truck. If I am stuffing full body, feet attached decoys in the back, I won’t be taking many along. However, if I am smart and incorporating lesser Canadas into the spread, it is a whole different story.
My first lesser geese were added to the collection a number of years ago. It was shortly after the fully flocked decoys hit the market and I felt inclined to give them a try. I was also intrigued by the size of the lesser Canada decoys and thought a mix might be nice.
The first half dozen ended up right in front of the blinds in the landing pocket. They worked so well that the next season I was in the market for some more. After shopping around for fully flocked lessers I settled on Dakota Decoys (available from barrelsup.com).
In an effort to learn more about the use of lesser geese mixed in with standard Canadas, I talked with Brain Cahalan from Goose and Duck Smackers Guide Service. Cahalan has been in the guide business for nine years and has a lot more knowledge about the mix of big and little geese than I do.
Although Cahalan utilizes lessers all fall, he really likes them for the early season hunt. During this time, young geese are considerably smaller than the mature adults. By mixing the lessers in with the standard full bodies, he is able to create a situation where the small decoys and big decoys look like normal family groupings.
Cahalan also likes them later in the season. He feels that lessers, EPP birds and larger resident Canadas are all around at the same time. A mix of sizes in the spread duplicates what is happening in the real world.
In addition to the natural look lessers give a set, Cahalan mentioned that they move on motion stakes more easily than larger, heavier decoys. The compact storage feature of lessers was also appreciated by Cahalan. Even guides have space issues to deal with.
Chad Allen, CEO of Barrels Up internet shopping site, also had some interesting
thoughts to share about lesser decoys. Allen said in the past year there has been an increase in the number of lesser decoys they have been selling. He felt hunters were learning that lessers not only solved storage issues, they actually enhanced the spread.
Throughout the season, I continue to put the bulk of my fully flocked lessers close to the blinds. These are the decoys that the incoming geese are concentrating on and the ones that will reduce the concern over the unusual appearance of the layout blinds. I want the landing zone to look as inviting as possible.
In short, lesser decoys have proven to add to my goose hunting success. They allow for greater flexibility when fighting storage issues and also create a very realistic appearance in my spread.
In other words, lessers can mean more.
It has been about 12 years since the Conservation Order to reduce the North American snow goose population was put into place. According to the
experts, snow geese were eating themselves out of house and home. They were literally destroying their habitat on the tundra faster than it could re- grow and replenish itself.
Snow geese have a habit of uprooting the plants that grow in the tundra to get at the roots and tubers that are found under the ground. Because this feeding habit pretty much destroys the plants, it takes a very long time for them to regrow in such a harsh environment. Thus developed the concern over the increasing number of snow geese.
As is usually the case, one series of disastrous events opened the door for a business opportunity for others. It didn’t take long for entrepreneurial waterfowl guides to start taking advantage of the situation and book clients for spring snow goose hunting.
Within a few years, the guide business was booming and is still going strong today. Like other waterfowl addicts, I have tried to do my part to reduce the population. However, I have learned it isn’t all that easy.
Unless a person is willing to lay out a serious chunk of change for a decoy
spread, hunters are better off working with a guide. Snow geese live a long time and are very smart. Large spreads of a thousand plus decoys are needed in order to be successful. Large spreads are spendy.
Timing is also pretty important. Getting in on the front part of the migration and adult birds will mean lots of bird watching but little shooting. Adult birds are very wary as they have been hunted a great deal. Being able to work the juveniles is pretty important when it comes to consistent numbers and memorable success.
During a late March trip to South Dakota, I was able to work with Goose and Duck Smackers Guide Service. The owners, Brian Cahalan and Josh Lett, start their season in Arkansas in early February and move north as the birds move. Although the cold and snow limited our access to juvenile birds, we still had a quality hunt.
I am already working out plans to make the trip again next year. This time, I am hoping the weather cooperates a little bit more and we can work on some of the juvenile birds along with the adults.
Even though the Conservation Order has been in effect for some time, the snow goose population continues to grow and thrive. Adult snow geese live a long time, as much as 30 years, and have a remarkable memory. Working adult geese is always tricky.
Part of the thrill of hunting spring geese is being able to watch the migration. It is a humbling experience to visually see nature at work on such a grand scale. We saw several kinds of geese and nine species of ducks.
Fall is definitely my favorite time of the year. I love the cool evenings and fresh mornings. I enjoy the gradual transformation of the world from summer green to colorful fall. I also greatly appreciate the hunting opportunities that coincide with the change of seasons.
Of all the types of hunting I do, Canada goose hunting is my favorite. There is something about working these birds over decoys that never ceases to give me a thrill. Not surprisingly, I am not the only one that enjoys this sport. I find more and more hunters are learning the pleasures of chasing geese.
With the increased pressure on our Canada goose population, birds get wary in a hurry. They quickly learn what decoy spreads are all about which requires extra effort by hunters to continually harvest birds.
If there is one thing I have learned about hunting pressured birds, it is the need for total concealment. Several companies make excellent decoys that look very realistic, but without a system for hiding the hunters, quality decoys go to waste.
For many years I have utilized layout blinds as the basis for concealment. Because of their higher profile, they are not as good as pits but are the only option I have on the land I hunt.
The biggest problem in hunting from layout blinds does not come from the profile but from the inability to blend in with the surroundings a person is hunting. I may be in wheat stubble one day, chisel plowed corn the next and alfalfa after that. Plugging all of the loops with the proper vegetation to match the surroundings is time consuming.
Several years ago I started utilizing a different system for concealing layout blinds. I needed something that was versatile and changeable to fit the various hunting environments I frequented. The materials I started to use are called raffia grass and Killer Weed.
Raffia grass, which is available at most craft stores, comes in a very neutral color that blends well with wheat or corn stubble. It can be dyed or spray painted to match other surroundings. It can also be rubbed in mud to dull its color. Killer Weed comes in several different coloration patterns that fit most situations.
The process I use for bundling and attaching these tough grasses is simple. First, I cut the grass into lengths of 18-24 inches. After that, I use a zip tie to bundle the clump together. I attach a clip onto the zip tie so I have a simple means of fastening the bundle to the layout blind.
By utilizing this simple system, it is possible to change out the color pattern on the blind to better match the hunting conditions. If I am in alfalfa, I add more green. If I am hunting soybean stubble, I take out the green and add brown.
Even though I start the hunt with a well covered blind, I still try to mix in some of the natural vegetation found in the field. However, with the bulk of the camo covering done before I start the hunt, I need less time in the field to put the final touches on the blind.
In addition to improving my concealment, I also believe flagging and calling are vital to continued success. I run one flag on a 15 foot telescoping pole and another on a short pole. The long pole is used to garner attention from a long ways off where the short pole works well when the birds are in close.
As for calling and calls, one does not have to be a champion caller to entice birds. However, the vocalizations that are made must be realistic. Utilizing quality calls such as Calef and Feather Duster (available at http://barrelsup.com) will help the process. Remember, learning to blow a short reed call is like learning to play a musical instrument. Practice, practice, practice.
Canada goose hunting will continue to be a very popular sport well into the future. Having excellent concealment is one of the most critical aspects of success. Flagging and calling also add further realism to your set.
It happens to me every single year. When the end of the hunting season comes and goose hunting is over, I go through a period of withdrawal. Making the adjustment to new activities takes time. Even when I am busy with other projects, goose hunting is still on my mind.
For the past few years, I have been fortunate enough to have an early spring reprieve. Due to the Conservation Order that allows for the reduction of snow geese, I have been able to participate in the spring snow goose hunt. For two years, I did my hunting in Missouri. This year, I am headed to South Dakota.
The snow goose dilemma is complicated yet simple. Simply stated, there are more snow geese in North America than their tundra nesting grounds can support. At their current level of population growth, they will destroy the fragile ecosystem on the tundra faster than it can replenish itself.
The complicated part is figuring out a way to reduce their numbers before disaster strikes. That was the rationale for the first Conservation Order in 1999 that allowed for special spring snow goose hunting regulations.
Not surprisingly, when a new hunting opportunity presented itself, guides and outfitters began to fill in the niche. Within a few years, snow goose guides were well established and hunting from Arkansas to North Dakota, following the geese as they moved north. Even though hundreds of thousands of geese are harvested during the spring migrations, most experts agree this is not enough.
In learning more about the snow goose hunting business, I contact Brian Cahalan, co-owner of “Goose and Duck Smackers Guide Service.” Cahalan had some pretty interesting facts to share.
Although Cahalan loved his spring and fall guide work and hunts nearly 200 days a year, he shared some of the tougher aspects of following the snow goose migration north in the spring. Travel and time on the road were negatives he discussed.
He also commented on the incredible investment that is necessary to really do the guide business justice. Even though he has other guides that work with him, he supplies all of the equipment. He estimated his hunting spread to be worth more than $100,000.
According to Cahalan, a variety of decoys are needed to bring the wary snow geese into gun range. These birds live a long time and are hunted for at least seven months of the year. Adult birds have seen it all and are very decoy shy.
When I asked about a typical hunt, I was surprised at the success rate of his clients. Cahalan explained that part of his success was due to utilizing a variety of decoys and part of it came from scouting and moving fields often.
Cahalan starts his annual snow goose hunting each February in Arkansas. As the birds move north following the snowline and available food, his group moves with them. By the first part of March, the birds are concentrated in Missouri. By mid March, the operation shifts to South Dakota. He guides in South Dakota as long as the geese stick around.
Snow geese are interesting birds that adapt well to hunting pressure. I find it somewhat ironic that the hunting pressure they try so hard to avoid is actually what keeps their population in check and prevents a species collapse due to over foraging their nesting area.
The current snow goose population in North America is over 5 million, not counting non breeding juveniles. For those that love to hunt and have not experienced spring snow goose hunting, it is quite a trip!
- Pressured Geese? Adjust Your Tactics
- Family Ties Are Strong
- Searching for Roosters Brings Rewards
- Tough Day? Try Downsizing
- Many Lakes, Many Fish
- Rainy Lake Walleyes
- Adjusting to the Unexpected
- Target Disconnected Bays for Spring Panfish Action
- Quitting is for Quitters
- Nomadic Walleye and Big Water
- Twitch Baits Are a Viable Option
- Target Weeds, Catch Bass